An emphasis on smaller plates and the continuing craft cocktail renaissance are two calling cards for a pair of new places around town, with serendipity having played a role in the establishment of them both. Chef and owner Ian Schnoebelen and his wife Laurie Casebonne (both of Iris) recently opened Mariza in the ground floor of the Rice Mill Lofts, and the idea was set into motion on the eve of their first trip to Italy.
“Sean Cummings approached us just before Laurie and I left town,” Schnoebelen recalls. “He was a fan of Iris and was looking for someone to come into his new development there.”
The impromptu pitch gave the couple a lot to think about on the flight over, and it was on the trip that they decided they were on board with this new venture. They took in the sights and tastes of Italy with a fresh pair of eyes, attuned to concepts they could roll into their new place. Their first stop in Venice provided a lot of inspiration. Schnoebelen was struck by the abundance of dishes featuring raw seafood and oysters on the half-shell, items that a lot of people don’t typically associate with Italian cuisine. They later carved out a niche in their menu for a raw bar, featuring inspirations like yellowfin tuna carpaccio with arugula, olives and fresh Parmesan cheese.
The core of the menu is Italian-derived, but not stringently so. “I’m not trying to be Italian, I’m just doing my own thing but incorporating a lot of those flavors,” Schnoebelen explains. While traveling, he took note of the heavily regional focus unique to each of the cities they visited. “Venice, Rome, Florence, Parma – everywhere we went just had the local product. So I’m trying to do that here, too.” To that end, all the meat on the menu is local. The pork and duck come from Covey Rise and Chappapeela Farms, along with a lot of the produce. Two Run Farms provides lamb and beef. His locker of house-cured charcuterie offers prosciuttos, coppa and several different kinds of salami. Keep an eye peeled for his Piola, an air-cured lamb leg seasoned with herbs, which he occasionally runs as a special.
The menu is spilt between small plates, pastas and pizza, as well as a short list of entrées. Popular dishes include a Squid Ink Linguini with Shrimp and Crab (“It’s New Orleans, everyone loves crab and shrimp, right?”) and whole roasted Gulf fish served with a fennel and arugula salad in lemon vinaigrette. “That is the style here,” Schnoebelen says. “Real rustic and real simple. Just trying to showcase the natural flavors.”
The menu offers a range of lighter dishes, such as a raw market vegetable salad tossed in an extra virgin olive oil and garnished with Pecorino cheese and sea salt. Ingredients change with availability, but recently it included beets, Romanesco, radishes and broccoli shaved paper-thin. Wines by the glass and apéritifs such as the Spritz, featuring Terriero Prosecco, Campari and club soda, add some zing to the inherently light menu. Straddling the dividing line between the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, the contemporary space features floor-to-ceiling windows and preserves much of the raw industrial-chic feel of the original space. Prices are modest for fine dining.
Serendipity also played a role in the quick establishment of La Fin du Monde on Magazine Street. Slotted into the space formerly occupied by Café Rani, the restaurant was pulled together in a matter of months. “We took over on Halloween of 2012 and opened in December,” recalls Chef Jonathan Lestingi. The name itself was a play on the purported Mayan apocalypse. “That was the whole idea – the world is supposed to end and we’re opening a restaurant and not really too worried about it.”
Still in its formative stages, the restaurant puts forth an array of craft cocktails assembled by Tonique alum Michelle McMahon and Geoffrey Wilson. Spread over two menus and split between brunch and dinner selections, these include everything from a traditional Ramos Gin Fizz to Death in the Afternoon, which is absinthe over a sugar cube with a lemon twist. Freshly squeezed juices serve as the base for many of the mixed concoctions.
Diners will see a fair sampling of bistro-style fare here, accompanied by a wide array of house-made pickled vegetables. Carrots marinated with ginger and rice vinegar pick up a distinctive flavor from the black cardamom in the pickling spice, and Lestingi’s fondness for regional foodstuffs results in pickled okra and mirliton as well. Lestingi, who worked previously at Root and Stella!, relies on French technique but isn’t particularly beholden to any one style. “I’m not a purist, by any means. None of the places I worked every really focused on one type of cuisine,” Lestingi says.
Off the brunch menu, served seven days a week, the Challah French Toast is popular, made with sweet bread from Maple Street Patisserie and served with a New Orleans Rum and pecan-infused Steen’s Cane Syrup. The dinner menu offers Pork Belly Lettuce Wraps, a David Chang-inspired dish that features its namesake piggy goodness glazed in homemade sweet soy sauce and cane syrup vinegar. Diners wrap the final product in a cool lettuce leaf and garnish it to taste with his homemade kimchee.
Coffee fans will enjoy the French Press coffee service, with beans provided by local small-batch roaster French Truck Coffee. La Fin Du Monde is open seven days a week for brunch and dinner service Tuesday through Saturday, and a few legacy dishes like a Smoked Chicken Club remain on the menu to assuage area residents bereft of Café Rani. Happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. is offered as well.
First on Freret
Cure on Freret Street offers an array of thoughtfully composed small plates to complement their craft cocktails, including Bacon and Bleu Cheese Crostini with honey and onion jam, a Serrano Ham plate featuring blueberry and gin jam, as well as a “Re-Imagined” Waldorf Salad. The granddaddy of the local craft cocktail movement was also the first to stake a claim to the now-rejuvenated stretch of dining and entertainment.
Rice Mill Lofts
2900 Chartres St.
Dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays
La Fin du Monde
2917 Magazine St.
Brunch daily; dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays
4905 Freret St.
Kitchen open 5 p.m.-midnight Sundays through Thursdays and until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays